Last spring, Radiohead erased itself from the internet. On May 1, the first thing to go was its website—an unannounced move that immediately became the topic of a frantic Reddit thread. “I just visited radiohead.com and everything seemed more pale,” a sleuthing user named norrsson wrote. “Looking at the source code, I noticed that they’ve put the opacity of the whole page at 75%.” He proceeded to update his post as it grew dimmer every 10 minutes, until the opacity reached zero and the site went black.
It was the internet’s favorite kind of bat signal: an unexplained, incredibly subtle change that was screaming to be closely monitored. It could either end with the discovery of new music from a legendary rock band or news of its breakup. That Reddit thread spurred a handful of posts from music and news sites, which, in turn, created even more buzz as they updated their reports over and over again as the band’s Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus posts steadily disappeared. Around the same time, fans received leaflets in the mail with the eerie lyrics: “Sing a song of sixpence that goes / Burn the witch / We know where you live.” Piecing all these clues together, it eventually became clear a new album was imminent. But for a moment, Radiohead had confused its fans.
It appears that Taylor Swift was trying to replicate the same energizing uncertainty of the A Moon Shaped Pool release when, last Friday, she wiped her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts without warning. But while Radiohead was able to exploit its five-year absence to breed rumors of a potential breakup or something vaguely artsy and experimental, it was much harder for the richest, most famous pop star in the world to feign the possibility of anything but an album release. Sure, Swift has laid low after losing a “Famous”-inspired feud with Kanye West, but there was no way that an incident so minor was going to force an acclaimed, award-winning, incredibly rich musician into hermit-dom. Swift’s social media scrubbing was a sure sign of an impending album drop—it was only a matter of when, what, and how.
And yet Swift felt the need to keep up her cryptic ruse. Her next move was to post a faux-glitchy video of a scaly tail—clearly a reference to the snake emojis that flooded her Instagram comments around the time Kim Kardashian West showed the internet all the receipts, and a hint that she would directly address the drama in her forthcoming musical project. It was genuinely titillating news! But then, the next day, she posted yet another different, glitchy, segment of the same tail, adding nothing remotely new to the conversation. On Day 3, when she finally posted a video of the snake’s head, the internet couldn’t help but deliver the obvious news with some snark. “UPDATE: Yep, Taylor Swift definitely posted videos of a snake,” USA Today deadpanned on Twitter. “It’s Definitely a Fucking Snake,” read a Jezebel headline. Typically, the internet processes new information in mere seconds, but three days later Swift was still forcing her captive audience to discuss that stupid CGI reptile. For non-superfans, Swift’s stunt quickly morphed from a fun speculatory news item to an exhausting, drawn-out publicity campaign. A few hours later we got the album cover art, November 10 release date, and news that the first single would be out Thursday night. But, after suffering through all three parts of that dumb snake—that information was much less exciting than if it had dropped from nowhere.
On Thursday, a segment on Good Morning America declared: “When it comes to the art of the drop, Taylor Swift is its Da Vinci, able to bring the internet to its knees.” This is exactly the type of thing a mainstream morning television show would say about a very famous pop star who will also exclusively air a clip of her new music video on its program this week. But it is very wrong. Taylor Swift warned us about her album drop, waited a few days to directly hint at its contents, and gave us more than a month’s worth of advanced notice of its release date. Friday, she will preview her first single’s music video on cable television. On Sunday she will most likely perform it at the VMAs. As Radiohead has proved, there’s a delicate art to the cryptic social media rollout. But Swift’s audience is just a little too commercial, a little too massive, a little too frantic to hit that obscure, mysterious sweet spot. It feels more like she's following a How to Build Hype guidebook than she is genuinely trying to surprise her followers. Swift is no Da Vinci, she is the album drop’s less-chill Bob Ross.